Friday, May 23, 2014

Catherine, Called Birdy by Karen Cushman

Catherine, Called Birdy is a young adult story told in the form of a diary. Not so unusual, you might think, but Catherine is a 14-year-old girl writing about her life in the year 1290.

I discovered this book when it was first published in 1994 and recently came across it at a used book store and snatched it up to reread. It was as fun to read as I remembered.

Author Karen Cushman has created a spunky, clever, and fearless heroine in her tale of life in a large manor with its attendant village as seen through the eyes of Catherine, called Birdy.

Things were a lot different in the Middle Ages.

Without romanticizing conditions in the least, we learn that Catherine spends minutes picking fleas off her arms and legs; hours mending and hemming sheets and other household linens; days longing to be playing outside with her best friend Perkin, the goat boy; and weeks trying to foil her father's plans of marrying her off to the first wealthy suitor who happens to call.

As to the running of the household, we get to attend holiday feasts featuring eel pudding, herring pie, fried milk, turnip soup, figs stuffed with cinnamon, an onion and mustard omelette. Some days are filled with clearing the floors of debris and freshening the rushes that serve as a carpet with fragrant dried herbs such as lavender. Visitors to the manor all pile into the main hall and sleep wherever they can - sometimes even on the floor in Birdy's room which she already shares with the nursemaid Morwenna. 

Birdy takes part in village fairs and celebrations; attends her first hanging which she discovers is not the gay affair she thought it would be; prepares tonics and salves for the ailing in the household; witnesses the funeral procession of Queen Eleanor, led by the handsome King Edward and his entourage; and longs to go on a crusade of her own. 

She writes about her days and muses about life in her own funny way. Her diary entries are filled with saints, curses (Corpus Bones!), odd characters, and all sorts of hilarious and sometimes sad goings on. 

A delightful tale. Although I surely wouldn't want to live in Catherine, called Birdy's time, I think I would surely enjoy having her as a friend.


  1. Sounds like a great read--and a good way to slip in some education about this time period. Though the title sounds familiar, I'm not sure I've read this. I might add it to the ever-growing children's/YA literature list.

    1. I really enjoyed this book, Kathy. Birdy has an unforgettable voice - one that will surely make you laugh. It's fun to sometimes be swept away to a 14-year-old girl's world. And I love reading diaries - real or made-up.